From Strangers to Best Friends in 45 Minutes

In the midst of deep discussions...

In the midst of deep discussions...

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending the Creative Problem Solving Institute (CPSI), where I was able to experience the applications and nuances of this method for harnessing deliberate creativity, the Creative Problem Solving process. One amazing part of the conference is that anyone can propose 60 minute session called night flights to try out experimental workshops.

I decided to try out one I had only done once before, whose purpose is to forge strong relationships between strangers in just 45 minutes. Sounds incredible, right?

Did it work?

Yes, it actually worked.

At the beginning of the workshop, I asked people to find a person they didn’t know and who they thought they they might have the least in common with. All of them were at a 1 out of 7.

By the end of the workshop, we may not have created super best friends, but the difference in relationship closeness is astounding. On average, the participants reported moving from a 1 to a 5.3 out of 7 in relationship closeness.

During the session, there was a good mix of laughter, and about a third of the participants broke down into tears while talking with their partner who had been only a stranger an hour before.

Overall, participants were believers at the end. After the hour, I then tried to get them to go to the bar together as a group, but most of the room just stayed in their same spot and continued conversation with their partner for another hour.

What was interesting was that the pairs kept referring to their partner as Best Friend throughout CPSI and became really excited whenever they saw one another. What’s more is that the workshop was talked about all throughout the rest of the conference. I wish I could have captured this feedback.

As a first timer at this conference, I didn’t expect so much positive feedback that even the keynote speakers of the conference would seek me out to learn more about what I did in this workshop.

Implications on the Success of This Session

Okay, so we can bring strangers closer in 45 minutes. What does this mean in the larger context of the world?

In my role at the University of Virginia, my primary role is to enhance the individual and team connections between student entrepreneurs so they will be more successful long-term. This is because it has been shown that trust and familiarity are the foundational elements of a successful startup, even more importantly than functional diversity, skills, or knowledge ( Ruef et al., 2003). These latter three things are important, but not as important as trust and familiarity in the success of a team.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could reduce the barriers to trust and familiarity among those who are functionally diverse to create rockstar teams that will be able to pull from a variety of experiences to solve the greatest challenges facing humanity?

Trust and familiarity come from those who associate closely with each other, in groups that provide “closure” for enforcing social norms. Unfortunately, due to homophily (the tendency of people to associate with those that they perceive to be like themselves), those that we develop trust and familiarity with are typically similar to us in some way. Classmates, sports teammates, childhood friends, etc.

As a result, many co-founder teams may lack the essential element of functional diversity from the outset.

Where This Idea Came From

Last semester, I had experimented with teaching early student Engineering entrepreneurs the creative problem solving process as a way to discovery high quality opportunities that they would be excited to move forward with past the class.

Our previous research has indicated that the most important part of an entrepreneurial journey is the people that the entrepreneur surrounds themselves with (Zorychta & Pyle, 2017).

Using this as a framework, I knew that what was more valuable than any tool I could give them would be providing the space for cultivating meaningful relationships built on trust and familiarity between these highly engaged students. I searched for activities that might provide for this; I found tools to help with self-awareness, and tools for teambuilding, but I was lacking in an established activity to create powerful relationships between individuals.

I decided to develop a session based on an article in the New York Times that went viral in 2015. It was based upon a psychological study that laid out a method and showed results for forging strong relationships between those who were initially strangers. We had such success with it in my Creativity for Invention class, that I decided to use it for CPSI.

The Basic Outline of the Workshop

The format was pretty basic. It took so little facilitation that I actually ended up participating it in myself. As far as what I did, I dug past the NY Times article that made this concept viral, and looked into the actual published paper of the psych study and copied their Methods section as my facilitation guide.

Essentially, it is three sets of questions that get more in-depth. For each set, you allot fifteen minutes. Partners take turns asking each other the same questions, moving down the list. The person asking the particular question first alternates with each question, so there is an equality and not a prime interviewer. Then, there is a final step in which pairs of participants share prolonged, unbreaking eye contact for five minutes.

Impromptu Changes to the Facilitation Plan

From this basic outline, I did a lot of experimentation in my facilitation according to what the energy of the room was and when I saw opportunities to make a more impactful experience. I will give three examples.

For instance, to choose partners, I did not randomly assign them. I had planned to ask them to find a stranger in the room with whom they believed they had the least in common. Then, in the moment, I thought that it might be most impactful for them to lock eyes with one another so I could figure out who was still unpaired. This initial eye contact proved to be very significant for the rest of the session, and yet was unplanned initially.

Second, I had initially intended for the partners to at least share some initial information about one another, such as name, hometown, and some small talk. I decided to nix this as soon as the volume of the room became loud after the partners found one another. I told them to only share nonverbal communication at first — this was mainly so I could make sure everyone had a partner and was ready to begin. This is an example of what I learned to be the “fourth rule of Improv,” called Cut With Energy (shoutout to Big Blue Door for teaching me that!)

The unintended consequence of this is that it built the anticipation, and made the “locked eyes” part of the experience that much more impactful, and it set a blank slate for their relationship and allowed them to dive deeply into a relationship with someone without even knowing their name.

Finally, I made it fun by getting everyone on board to try to “replicate” this scientific study. I explained how it was found that possibly half of psychology studies’ findings are not reproducible, and that we had to follow these methods to the T to make sure we would actually become best friends. The gave a sense of adventure and shared purpose for the group.

In what ways might we provide more meaningful experiences like this?

I’m hoping to find and develop more mechanisms like this session, “Did We Just Become Best Friends?”

If you’re interested in talking more about this, I’d love to discuss. I’m also looking for more opportunities to facilitate workshops like this that create stronger connections between people. Let me know if you’re looking for someone with high energy and enthusiasm to facilitate them.

Originally published at on June 30, 2018.

Innovating How We Support Early Stage Student Innovators

Entrepreneurship education programs in the United States grew from humble beginnings in the 1970s to around 2,100 college and university entrepreneurship curricula in 2012. Following in the footsteps of other universities, we at the University of Virginia (UVA) have steadily offered more and more entrepreneurship education programs over the years. But in the spring of 2015, we noticed that very few student entrepreneurial projects actually continued beyond the formal programs. This issue isn’t unique to UVA; by talking with entrepreneurship educators at conferences around the country, we’ve found this to be a challenge faced by many institutions. Indeed, numbers reported by the Kauffman Foundation tell the same story: the rate of new entrepreneurs has been unaffected for at least the last twenty years.

We decided to focus on addressing this issue at UVA. Following the entrepreneurial approaches of customer discovery, the creative problem-solving process, and effectuation, our goal was to identify gaps within our university entrepreneurship programs that, if addressed, would generate more early stage innovators, technologies, and successful startups coming from our institution.

The Process

1. Customer Discovery
To kick off the process, we took the approach outlined in Giff Constable’s Talking to Humans: doing short, informal, conversational interviews to understand the perspectives of students pursuing entrepreneurial projects. We decided to start with current students who had participated in the entrepreneurship competitions, and ended up interviewing close to 500 students. We found that only a tiny sliver was pursuing entrepreneurial projects, and that this small fraction’s perspective regarding university support of entrepreneurship was radically different from the perspective of the large majority of students.

2. Creative Problem Solving
With the interviews completed, we cycled through the creative problem solving process, involving a combination of divergent and convergent thinking approaches. In the first phase, Clarify, we gathered as much relevant information as possible about this challenge and converged upon the key research that most closely defined it. Next, in Ideate, we came up with ideas that could be possible solutions and converged on the ones that appeared the most promising. Third, these ideas were molded into solutions in the Develop phase, and were then e­valuated and improved to pick the best one. Finally, we laid out the roadmap for execution of the solution in the Implement phase.

3. Effectuation
In deciding how to implement the wide variety of experimental programs developed, we turned to Effectuation, the process used by “expert entrepreneurs,” in order to forge key partnerships, leverage available resources, and validate key assumptions. Through this method, we identified and have started experimental offerings that have shown early traction around a thriving community of practice of early stage innovators. In less than two years, we have gone from identifying ten student entrepreneurial projects to 70 that exist outside of any formal programming.

The Lessons Learned

By going through the above three steps, we developed a set of best practices for supporting early stage innovators that we’re following in our implementation. They are:

  1. Identify the right group of students, and design for them. Sometimes the squeakiest wheels are not the ones who should get all of the oil. Most of the engaged early stage student innovators we found were not active participants in the entrepreneurial programming that is common at many universities, including student-run organizations. Because these early stage innovators are actively working on projects instead of participating in entrepreneurial programming and are only a tiny minority of the total student population, their voices can get drowned out. The majority of students in entrepreneurial offerings is just getting started and may be there for a variety of reasons. Designing programming for the majority obscures the needs of the minority of students actively working on entrepreneurial projects.
  2. Less is more; don’t over-structure it. You do not need a fancy building with slick furnishings, an eye-catching marketing campaign, or a staff of 30 people. These may serve to bring students in the door, but if their needs are not addressed, it will eventually make the serious ones jaded. Facilitating weekly or biweekly informal meetings combined with access to an immediate connection to a resource or expert as needed are the only necessary tasks for the facilitator. Most importantly, make it personal (one-to-one) rather than transactional (one-to-many). Gathering space can help attract outside support, but personal interactions can happen in any location, and those interactions are more important than anything else.
  3. The best resources for entrepreneurs are often those that are not heavily marketed. “The tiniest dog barks the loudest.” If you want to truly facilitate early stage innovation, you or your organization need to be the node rich with the personal relationships and connection to resources and expertise that have worked well in the past. If you connect students to these personally, rather than transactionally, and you make it an expectation that they do the same for those younger students that come after them, then you build a self-sustaining and scalable system without much overhead.
  4. Don’t discount the most powerful social influence, peer effects, which provide social norms that can counteract even the most fiercely anti-entrepreneurial institutional or regional culture. Design and provide offerings for early stage innovators that naturally select for those who are there solely because of intrinsic motivation. The best approach for the intentional design of peer effects is to develop a community of practice through strong dyadic ties and then strong small group ties with weaker bridging ties between the groups (a structure that has been described before as an entrepreneurial network). This social structure then provides for lifelong relationships between students, the institution, and alumni innovators.

If you want to learn more about the process we used to arrive at these findings, we will be leading a creative problem solving workshop at OPEN 2017 around addressing the gaps in supporting early stage innovators. We anticipate participants will take home rich, actionable solutions based on the shared perspectives and challenges being faced by different institutions. Find out about OPEN 2017 and register here. See you there!

Originally published at VentureWell on February 28, 2017.